PM Olmert to hold talks with Putin in Moscow on Thursday
PM, Putin to discuss Iranian nuclear threat; visit comes days after Putin meet in Tehran.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will leave Thursday for Moscow to hold talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Prime Minister's Office said on Wednesday, announcing the surprise visit.
Olmert's visit comes days after the Russian president met with Iranian leaders, discussing Russian support for the Iranian uranium enrichment program. Olmert will return to Israel on Thursday evening after his meeting with Putin, the Prime Minister's Office said.
News of the talks came on the final day of a four-day visit to Israel and the West Bank by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who is preparing the ground for a U.S.-sponsored Middle East conference expected next month.
"The prime minister intends to discuss with the Russian president a series of regional issues including the peace process with the Palestinians and Iran's threats and its attempt to equip itself with nuclear weapons," the announcement said.
During his brief trip to Iran, Putin made an unspecified proposal concerning Iran's controversial nuclear program to the country's top leader at a private meeting, Iran's state news agency said Wednesday.
Russian officials could not immediately be reached to verify the report and the Iranian news agency provided no details on what Putin had proposed.
The supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, told Putin in turn that Iran avoids adventurism and cooperates with the United Nations nuclear watchdog, but is serious about continuing with uranium enrichment, the news agency said.
Iran's top nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani said Putin carried a special message for Khamenei. The nuclear issue was part of it, Larijani was quoted as saying by the official IRNA news agency, without elaborating.
Khamenei, who has the final say on all government matters in Iran, said Iran will give Putin's proposal serious thought before giving a response, the news agency said.
"We will ponder your words and proposal", IRNA quoted Khamenei as saying.
Officials close to hard-liners within Iran's ruling Islamic establishment said they believed the proposal by Putin was a type of timeout on sanctions against Iran, if Tehran suspends uranium enrichment.
The five permanent UN Security Council members, plus Germany, have been working together to try to find a way to get Iran to abandon its disputed uranium enrichment program.
The main reason for Putin's visit to Iran was to convey this message personally to the ultimate power in Iran, one official close to hard-liners said on condition of anonymity.
Putin's visit, during which he met with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and attended Tuesday's summit of Caspian Sea nations, was a first. No Kremlin leader has traveled to Iran since Josef Stalin in 1943, for a wartime summit with Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Before visiting Iran, Putin held extensive talks on Iran's nuclear activities with some Western leaders including French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Putin has bluntly spelled out his disagreements with Washington, saying last week that he saw no objective data to prove Western claims that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons.
At talks Friday with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, he ridiculed U.S. plans for a missile defense system in eastern Europe, supposedly to stop an Iranian attack.
On Tuesday in Tehran, Putin warned the United States not to use a former Soviet republic to stage an attack on Iran.
Iran insists the nuclear program is only for developing energy, and it has touted the program as a sign of its technological prowess. But the United States and its allies contend Iran is secretly pursuing nuclear weapons.
The Security Council permanent members group in June 2006, offered a package of economic and political rewards to Iran and a suspension of the implementation of sanctions, but only if Tehran agreed to suspend enrichment before the start of negotiations. Iran rejected that proposal.
The U.N. Security Council imposed sanctions on Iran in December for refusing to suspend enrichment, and modestly increased them in March after Tehran stepped up the program. Iran responded by giving the UN nuclear watchdog less access to its nuclear facilities.
IRNA, the official news agency, reported Wednesday that Khamenei had told Putin that U.S. demands had no limits but that Iran won't seek adventurism.
"Iran ... has chosen a lasting logic in defending its national interests because it is certain that excessive demands of the enemies of this nation has no limits."
"Due to this reason, the Iranian nation and government, while avoiding adventurism and not giving pretexts to the enemy, will pursue this wise logic," IRNA quoted Khamenei as telling Putin.
Khamenei also said Iran will continue cooperation with the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, to scrutinze Iran's nuclear program.
"Iran's cooperation with the IAEA is a logical and correct path and will continue. We are determined to meet our country's need for nuclear energy. That's why we are taking the issue of enrichment seriously," IRNA quoted Khamenei as saying.
Khamenei said an independent Iran was in the interest of Russia, while a powerful Russia served the interests of Iran.
Russia has resisted the U.S. push for stronger sanctions against Tehran and strongly warned Washington against using force against Iran.
But its position is carefully hedged: It has delayed completing the Bushehr nuclear power plant, Iran's first, and is urging the country to comply with international controls on its nuclear activities.
Putin refused to set a date Tuesday for the start-up of Iran's first nuclear power plant, but stressed that Moscow would not back out of its commitment to complete the project.
Setting a date by Putin to quickly complete the power plant could embolden Iran and further cloud Russia's relations with the West.
Putin's visit to Tehran on Tuesday was watched closely because of Moscow's possible leverage in the Islamic Republic's nuclear row with the West.